My Saturday gig sent me to Tennyson High School this week where alumni celebrated the school's 50th anniversary. I was tasked with adding unspecified multimedia to an already-written print story. I went, grabbed photos, audio and nachos, and built a slide show that I'm in no way happy with.
Here's where I think I went wrong: I tried to tell a linear story, and I fell all over myself doing it.
First, Soundslides was the wrong tool. It was wrong because, for the most part, it is a tool for telling stories that go from beginning to end, or for capturing one concise moment or idea. It's perfect for photo essays, or profiles, or focused narratives.
This was none of those. There was a Big Story, to be sure: a sweeping narrative of five decades, a sense of history in the place and hope for the future. Not very visual, though (especially lacking historical photos).
But this wasn't really one story, or rather just one story. It was hundreds. Threads of every student and teacher and administrator's life at this school make up the real story, not beginning to end but overlapping in a way that's tough to boil down to 400 words, or a dozen photos with two minutes of sound.
Were I writing for print, I could probably wax with some eloquence about the coalescing of memories, the nostalgia free of longing, the connections between
old and young.
But really, most of that would be utter bullshit.
The truth of Tennyson High is that it's not my school. I was there on a Saturday, and I've never been there before. If I did my job right, I served as a conduit for others to remember and to share, and I got the hell out of the way.
Which brings me to my second error: I got in the way. By trying to force a spectrum of memory into a linear story, I made myself the arbiter of recollection. I sat over GarageBand deciding whose story deserved to be told. That's pretty much a no-win situation for something both personal (to those involved) and trivial (in the grand scheme).
So, for next time, what's the best way to cover something like this?
First, start early. We know this is going to happen, when and where. We know there is going to be community interest. We know generally what the Big Story will be. There's time to build some infrastructure.
Infrastructure? Yeah, I said it. Roads and bridges, or in this case, a space for people to share memories, exchange photos, plan to meet up. Much of this is already out there, so it's just a matter of cultivating and curating, hopefully.
Flickr is a good place to start. Make a group and invite people to scan photos of Tennyson in the old days. Or last week. Doesn't really matter because we want them all. Make it clear that the newspaper (and it's website) intend to use some in print and online features, but also aggregate as many as possible under the company banner. Whenever I've covered community events, the number one complaint I would hear back is about whose kid didn't get their photo in the paper. Online, everyone gets their photo in the paper (so to speak).
Next, stories: It needs to be easy. Set up an email address, a simple web form, a snail mail address and a voice mail line (Cinch or Utterz might work here). Again, invite people to share memories of their (or their kids, parents, etc) time at Tennyson. Also encourage them to attach photos to these memories, but don't require it.
All of this needs to be promoted in the print edition ferociously. People should see it at least two weeks before and every day until the event. Make it obvious, and make it easy.
Next, get all the photos, stories, voices and other extraneous bits into one place. Make them sortable and shareable. This is probably the toughest part, since it might mean going outside most newspapers' content management systems in order to bring people in. Do what you gotta do.
When in doubt, go with what's out there. Most of this can be done with Ning (it's free, at least to start). Drupal, too, has modules to pull in threads from other sites, and I'm sure it's wicked easy in Django (I will learn this, eventually).
But if any of that looks hard, run back to Ning, get something up, and get talking to people, because that's the real juice for this. It's not about technology or websites or brands. The point is to create a vibrant portrait of a community that already exists. People, first and last, and get out of the way.
Suggestions? Let's hear 'em.